I first met Victoria Kyriakopoulos in May 2015; I had just arrived in Australia, yet another number in the long list that makes the ‘Greek brain drain’, the recent wave of migration. At the time, she had just begun to outline The Hellenic Initiative Australia (THI Australia), a solution for the crisis in Greece, which saw me leaving the country.

In June that same year that the first official meeting of philhellene businesspeople in Melbourne took place, aiming to offer relief for Greece. Three years later, I meet Victoria for coffee and an account of this experience that has many small victories, strong bonds, and collaborations with a lot of prospect.

If there is a key person in every story, in the THI Australia case, Victoria Kyriakopoulos is certainly one such person. As a project manager, she took on the task to turn the will of the THI board to help Greece into action, selecting and developing projects that made a difference. Of course, nothing happened by accident: her personal and professional trajectory had given her the chance to have a compact knowledge of Greece that turned out to be particularly useful.

“When I started working, everything was just an idea,” she says. “I was in a transitional phase in my own life, I was on maternity leave, having worked many years in Australia in different media roles and I also had some good professional experience in Greece, where I had worked during the ‘golden years’ of the Olympic Games. My relationship to Greece is multifaceted and has been through a lot of transformations. It is not only a matter of background: it has also been my professional occupation, [from] when I started covering Greek news for Australian media. After that, I changed position and perspective, as I found myself working in Greece for media relating to the Greek diaspora. At the same time, I got to do travel features on Greece for Lonely Planet. So I started seeing Greece not only as a Greek from the diaspora, but also as a guide, a traveller and a journalist, both from within the country and from the outside. A common thread made its presence in all my activities and I started thinking how I can help promote the country I know and love to the world.”

The first project of The Hellenic Initiative was a program to offer internship to young graduates of Greek universities to large Australian businesses. Planning, designing, organising and executing this project was a great challenge, says Victoria.

“What we do as an organisation goes much further than a simple office work,” she stresses. “We need to combine a lot of things: the vision and willingness to help with good planning, with the right assessment of the candidate, to find the appropriate internship position for each candidate in a large Australian corporation, but also it is part of our job to pick up these kids from the airport, welcome them to an unknown country and look after them. Soon I am going to go and pick up the 17th participant from the airport.”

I point out that this motherly attitude seems like a fundamentally Greek trait. “You do play the mother a bit, inevitably,” she laughs. “These are kids that the THI takes under its wing, our relationship is personal, we still remain in touch after the program. I see them as ‘my children’, I follow their path and whenever they have good news about their career and they get in touch to share, it is a great joy for me.”

Victoria Kyriakopoulos.

“When THI Australia first started, we were all thinking that as it consists of philhellenes who are powerful entrepreneurs, our actions would focus on programs of economic growth in Greece. But in 2015, the humanitarian crisis caught our attention. It was impossible to disregard it and we were looking for a way to intervene.”

But why did she end up forming a partnership with ‘Boroume’ this successful Greek NGO? It was probably due to her journalism skills, as Victoria found herself doing research, just as she did when she was a reporter.

“I had been in touch with some organisations in Greece, trying to identify their needs and their answer was that they wanted dry food, like rice and legumes in small packages. Our research showed that it is pointless to send food from Australia to Greece, not to mention logistically challenging. We were also not happy with the idea [of sending] funds for them to buy the food.
“The Hellenic Initiative has a different approach to helping those in need, compared to traditional philanthropy, and this is something that is agreed upon across the board; our aim is not to raise funds and make donations. We are looking for partnerships and collaborations and we want our funds to be used to create programs with specific goals that could bring the best and longest-lasting outcomes. There are a lot of organisations that feel their money was lost somewhere in the procedure, so we make sure to check who we work with and operate under a different business model.”

‘Boroume’ was one of the first organisations approached by The Hellenic Initiative; Victoria was impressed. “They had developed a scheme to save food, leaving out middlemen and storage. I was very impressed by its founder Alex Theodoridis and his team; they are very energetic, they have studied and worked abroad, they have a very good work culture, they speak fluent English and are leaders in their field. We thought that if we adopted their program, our funds could produce the best outcome. Basically we pay for the program managers’ salaries, thus allowing the organisation to not be in the position where it is relying too much on volunteers, so that they can focus on planning out and executing their program.”

ΤΗΙ first undertook a collaboration on saving food, and then decided to go forward with ‘Boroume at the Farmer’s Market’, so that it could claim a program of its own.

“You know, there are these big programs, where you enter as one of the sponsors, and your donation is a drop in an ocean of funding. We could not afford to offer such great sums, but we wanted to create a program tailored to our budget, which could be effective and meaningful both for us and crisis-stricken Greece. What we managed to do with the $36,000 we gave to Boroume last year was unbelievable! The effectiveness of the organisation, the food saved that could otherwise go to waste, the meals that were produced, the social impact – we know that our money were put to good use and went where it should. So, this year we doubled our funding; and there’s also another great outcome; we’ve built a great relationship.”

Victoria is right to feel proud of the program. Numbers talk by themselves. The ‘Boroume at the Farmer’s Market’ motto is “no food portion goes to waste”; the organisation collects unsold fruit and vegetables from a number of farmers’ markets around Athens and Thessaloniki and donates them to local charities which turn them into meal portions. Last year they saved 73.5 tons of fruit and vegetables from waste and produced thousands of meal portions for people in need around Greece.

“I hope this year I get to go volunteer at our Farmers’ market in Athens or Thessaloniki,” she says. “I like the market, I love it; when I was living in Athens, I often used to go to farmers’ markets, they are a universe of their own. During the last few years, producers would give their surplus to people in need, but these were random acts. Now that they have been organised through our program, they feel prouder themselves for this.”

But why is it important to The Hellenic Initiative to persuade those travelling in Greece to volunteer for a day at the farmers’ markets?

“It may sound a bit strange to ask Australians, whether they come from a Greek background or not, who travel to Greece to volunteer for a day or a few hours, but the truth is that it can make a great difference,” Victoria explains.

“You don’t have to speak fluent Greek or have any specific knowledge, what we need is available hands. The program runs all year long in many farmers’ markets and we have a number of regular volunteers, but during Greek summer, this number diminishes.
“Last year, we sent some of our own volunteers on a trial basis; we did not want to turn this into some kind of crisis tourism, nor cause any problems at the Boroume workflow. But what they told us was that our volunteers were very helpful and saved the day. On top of that, it is a great experience; you meet people, you make friends, you’re part of a group. In our pilot program last year, we had 35 people participate, including families with small children, young people, politicians, media professionals, entrepreneurs. We have had people from all ages: one of our volunteers was 82 years old! We hope to be able to send even more this time around.”

So now, what are the future goals for The Hellenic Initiative Australia?

“Following the same business model, we continue to run programs that help Greece,” says Victoria.

“One of them is our joint program with Emfasis, which started in January. We do not leave anything to chance. Everything is connected. Here’s how the Emfasis collaboration came to be: one of the prerequisites for the young people who come to Australia to take part in our internship program, is to have volunteer experience in Greece. So when I was processing the application of one of the candidates, I found out about this program of volunteer community service which seemed very interested, so I looked into it.”

It makes sense that Emfasis needed a bit more research than other programs. Despite being active for more than five years, this organisation, which supports homeless people, remains relatively unknown, operating as a kind of ‘invisible’ force in the streets of Athens, going to those in need with mobile units. This is why Maria Karra, one of the founders of Emfasis, was surprised to be contacted by Nick Pappas, president of THI Australia.

“Before we made our decision, one of the THI board members, Peter Abraham travelled to Greece and had a firsthand account on the way Emfasis works. He spent a whole night on the streets of Piraeus with a team of volunteers, he saw them in action, realised how meaningful and impactful their work is and was impressed. So we decided to move forward and started funding the organisation in January.
“We donated $35,000 which again allows Emfasis to not only rely on volunteers but hire a permanent team which will be organised and be in a position to drive with a van around Athens during the day as well. We follow the same business model here; we set goals in cooperation with the organisation, we assess the outcome and we proceed to the next phase of funding. We want to make sure that we’re in the right track and that we build long-lasting relationships.”

It looks like Victoria Kyriakopoulos and THI Australia are part of an effort made by the ‘other’ Greece to mend the social fabric, where it has been torn. What part of Greece does she see, through her daily work?

“The Greeks that I come across in my work are those who have struggled to stay in the country, but also those who decided to go back and help, leaving behind some significant careers abroad. For example, Michael Printzos, who is our head of programs and THI representative in Greece, is an Oxford University graduate who deliberately returned to the country, knowing what he [was] leaving behind. But he is committed to our cause and deeply believes in what he does.
“We are all part of a network and we believe that slowly, step by step, we can make a difference. All our partners have this mindset, they have small, yet significant goals. We have a very specific vision for Greece. We build partnerships, we create a chain and this effort is starting to bear fruit. This is why I feel good do be one of The Hellenic Initiative people.”

For more information about THI Australia and its programs, visit https://au.thehellenicinitiative.org/
If you are interested to volunteer in the ‘Boroume at the Farmers’ Market’ in Athens or Thessaloniki, go to https://au.thehellenicinitiative.org/what-we-do/1089-2/